MONUMENT VALLEY '04

Monument Valley, situated on the Utah-Arizona border is perhaps the most famous landscape associated with western film-making and this is in no small part due to the 'Founding Father' of the western, John Ford.

In 1939 Harry Goulding, a pioneer who had built a small trading post near to Monument Valley, heard that a Hollywood studio was scouting for a location to film a major western motion picture. Goulding, with the help of photographer Josef Muench, prepared a portfolio of the landscape and, from that, the location was chosen to film John Ford's 'Stagecoach'. Although George B. Seitz had previously filmed the silent movie 'The Vanishing America' amongst the towering rock formations, it was Ford that etched this landscape on our memories by returning time and again to what is now referred to as 'Ford Country'. Among his other westerns filmed at the location are 'She Wore A Yellow Ribbon', 'The Searchers', 'Sergeant Rutledge' and 'Cheyenne Autumn'.

It is of little surprise then that Sergio Leone, in making his ultimate homage to the western, 'Once Upon a Time in the West', took a rare excursion outside of Europe to use this striking landscape. And that is why, during my honeymoon to the American South West, a visit to Monument Valley was inevitable.

Driving towards Monument Valley from the south on Highway 163 it is difficult to make out any familiar landscape. It is not until we reach the visitor centre and walk to the edge of the overlook that we are immediately struck by what is perhaps the most famous view of the valley. Directly in front of us stands the three imposing rock formations known as the Left Mitten, the Right Mitten and Merrick Butte. The soil and sandstone rock of Monument Valley contains high concentrations of oxidized iron giving the landscape a rich red hue.

We had arrived soon after lunch and set off straight away on the 17-mile "2-hour" self-guided drive. Monument Valley Tribal Park is owned by the Navajo and their rules dictate that you stay to the marked route or hire a Navajo guide if you wish to venture off the beaten track.

One of the highlights of the tour is the stop at 'John Ford Point', said to be the director's favourite view of the valley. It is here that Leone filmed a long panning shot of Jill's carriage ride through the landscape.

After stopping off at every viewpoint on route, my wife ("I think I'll stay in the car for this one!") and I finally arrive back at the visitor centre some four hours later.

It is now approaching five o'clock so we decide to head for check-in at our hotel, Goulding's Lodge, less than a mile from the visitor centre. It is after six when we arrive. (Just to really confuse matters Monument Valley Tribal Park is in Arizona, but Goulding's Lodge is in Utah and although both States are on Mountain Time, Utah follows Daylight Time and Arizona does not - or something like that).

Goulding's Lodge is built at the location where Harry Goulding had his trading post. (The original trading post is now a museum to the valley's cinematic history). The lodge is superbly located with all rooms giving a clear view over the valley.

We head back to the visitor centre to watch the sunset. With the sun falling behind us the red rock of the Left and Right Mittens blazes in the fading light. The whole landscape glows with warm hues of red and brown, with the rock formations standing in stark contrast to the rich purple of the sky. This was a moment that I failed abysmally to capture photographically, which is a shame as it was one of the most beautiful things I have seen. (Later in this section you will see some photos taken during this sunset but, believe me, they do no justice to the moment). We head back to our lodging.

The following morning I am rudely awaken by an alarm clock at 5:30. We have decided to watch sunrise over the valley from our hotel balcony. I lie barely awake for the next ten minutes trying to work out Utah-Arizona time differences in a pathetic attempt to convince myself that I am two hours too early for the main event. Finally I manage to drag myself to the balcony - it is worth the effort to see the distinctive rock formations of the valley silhouetted on the horizon.

Our visit to Monument Valley was just one highlight of a great vacation in the United States - a great vacation not only for the breath-taking landscapes we saw, but also for the friendliness of the American people and the warm welcome and outstanding service we received wherever we went.

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